By Frank Iannamico
French Mle MAS 1949/56
Interest in French military weapons in the U.S. has been limited to just a few collectors at best. The French guns just aren’t as popular as the military weapons of other foreign nations, such as Germany or Great Britain. This lack of interest is due, at least in part, to the lack of French surplus arms, ammunition and information about them. The French are somewhat like the Russians when it relates to military weapons and their development, very discreet. The French also retain many of their military weapons long after they are deemed obsolete. In addition these weapons are typically ill – conceived, poorly designed, and shabbily built.
Another reason for the limited popularity French weapons have, is the odd cartridges they fire. The French cartridges, like the guns, have never been available in ample amounts to interest American collector and shooters.
Recently there have been some very interesting French military arms imported into the U.S. One is the MAS 36 bolt action rifle. The other one is the semi-automatic MAS model 1949/56. Both of these weapons are chambered for the French 7.5 round. What make these rifles attractive is the extremely low price and their availability in like-new condition.
Granted, both rifles are chambered for the odd 7.5 French round. Ammunition is available but it is expensive. There is however, an alternative solution to the ammunition problem. The brass case used for the 6.5 Swiss round can be easily converted to the 7.5 French specs. Boxer primed 6.5 Swiss brass is readily available from several manufacturers. For projectiles, the 150 grain .308 FMJ bullets will work fine. A future article will cover the cartridge conversion in detail.
The French 7.5 cartridge is a rimless design. A 139 grain, full metal jacket .307” projectile is used. Velocity is 2,690 feet per second. The cartridge was originally designed in 1924 as the 7.5x58mm/model 1924, to replace the outdated 8×50 Lebel rimmed cartridge. There were problems with the original round. The most prominent was the fact that it was very similar in appearance and dimension to the German 7.92×57 (8mm) Mauser cartridge. Problems arose when French troops would accidentally try to fire a captured .323 caliber German cartridge in the .307 caliber French gun. One dimension that wasn’t immediately obvious to the shooter that was the projectile on the German round was .016” larger. The result was usually a severely damaged gun, and an injured shooter.
A new 7.5 French round was then designed with a 4mm shorter case so that the German and French rounds were easy to distinguish from one another. This new cartridge was the 7.5x54mm/model 1929, and this has been the standard French issue for many years.
When World War I broke out the French were equipped with an array of various small arms, all obsolete.
It was the French who first issued semiautomatic rifles for military use, during WWI. The French developed several semiautomatic rifles and cartridges in the early 1900’s. Some of these designs were very advanced for the time. Some were adopted for limited use, but the only semiautomatic rifle issued in any large number was the French model 1917.
It would be the last semiauto France adopted for many years to come. Although the French developed and tested a large amount of prototype semi-autos they never had one fully developed, and ready for large scale manufacture until the end of WWII.
By 1939 the French army was still mainly equipped with the MAS 36 bolt action rifle of WWI. The French Arsenal of St-Etienne (MAS), had developed a suitable semiauto rifle, the MAS 38-39. That rifle soon evolved into the MAS 40, which was close to production in 1940. It was too late. The German Army had already begun the invasion of France. France was soon conquered and occupied by the Germans, and would be under Nazi control for the next four years. France’s quest for a semiautomatic service rifle was on hold.
After France was liberated by the allies on August 25, 1944, limited work resumed immediately on the MAS 1940. One addition to the MAS 1940 design was a new, detachable, 10-round magazine. This new updated version was the MAS 1944. About the time the rifle was ready for mass production, the war in Europe had ended.
The French MAS 1944 finally under went its baptism of fire in the French’s fateful war with Indochina (Vietnam). Combat experience in that war exposed some shortcomings of the MAS 1944. Development continued resulting in the MAS 1944A model. In addition to the MAS 1944 and MAS 36, The French used many U.S. small arms in Indochina. Many of these weapons were captured and used against U.S. troops early in the United States’ involvement in Vietnam.
A small quantity of MAS 1944s were imported into the U.S. in the mid 1980’s. Only a small number of these rifles were manufactured. These are seldom offered on the collector market today.
The basic MAS 1944-1944A was further developed into yet another model, the MAS 49. The MAS 49 differed from previous models slightly with a modified ejector, firing pin, grenade launcher and rear sight. Virtually every new model of the basic MAS had a different rear sight. Approximately 20,000 model 49s were manufactured. Some of these rifles were still in service as late as 1993.
The last model to evolve from the basic design was the MAS 1949/56. This model featured a modified rear sight, a blade type detachable bayonet, muzzle brake and a gas cut off for the grenade launcher. Approximately 275,000 1949/56’s were produced from 1957 to 1978, making it the most prolific model of the series. The rifle was an evolved model of a basic design that dated from 1938. The 1949/56 saw some service with the French Army in their Algerian campaign. The beginning in 1979 the 1949/56 was slowly replaced by the bullpup design 5.56 NATO caliber FAMAS rifle.
All the rifles in the MAS 1938 to the MAS 1949/56 series were chambered for the French 7.5 cartridge. This seems odd, as the 7.62×51 round (.308 Winchester) was adopted as NATO standard in 1954. Only a very few 1949/56’s were ever produced in 7.62 NATO caliber, the bolt head and firing pin were slightly different, and of course the barrel was chambered in 7.62 NATO.
The rifle featured in this article, the model MAS 1949/56, is an extremely well made firearm. The particular rifle reviewed is in virtually new condition inside and out. Both the Fit and the Parkerized finish are very good for a military weapon. Construction is almost entirely of milled steel. While this adds quality and ruggedness, it also adds considerable weight. Oddly the cocking knob on the rifle is made from nylon, that is white in color.
The 1949/56 is gas operated and utilizes the gas impingement system. This eliminates the need for many parts such as the operating rod, and related components. The system is much like the system used on the current U.S. M16 service rifle.
The bolt, and related parts, again, are quality-manufactured from milled steel. The tilting bolt system operates like that in the Russian SKS, and the FN FAL rifles. The bolt has a safety feature that keeps the firing pin retracted until the bolt is locked in the receiver.
The removable magazine has a ten-round capacity, and is formed from sheet metal. The magazine latch is located on the magazine itself, rather than on the receiver.
The rear tangent peep sight on the 1949/56 is adequate, and is adjustable for windage. The front sight is a protected post adjustable for elevation.
The rifle has a grenade launcher/flash hider and sight attached to the barrel. When the grenade sight is lifted the gas cutoff is activated. There is a movable ring that fits into graduated grooves (90m to 190m) in the barrel, and this can be moved to adjust the range of the grenade being launched.
The overall length of the rifle is 40”. The barrel has 4, left-hand grooves, with a 1 in 10.6” twist. Weight with a loaded 10 round magazine, is 9.9 pounds. Muzzle energy is 2,336 foot pounds.
The rifle has very gentle recoil for a weapon firing a full power round. Accuracy is adequate for a military weapon using issue ammunition, and could most likely be enhanced by experimenting with hand loaded cartridges.
Most of the surplus MAS 1949/56 rifles currently available come equipped with quite an array of accessories. They include several spare magazines, a bayonet and scabbard, a cleaning kit, sling, recoil pad, luminescent night sight device and a broken shell extractor. The accessories (like the rifles) are in like-new condition. Original M-1953 sniper scopes for the rifle are also being offered by dealers. Surplus 7.5 ammunition, though expensive, is available.
The French 1949/56 rifle is available from several different surplus dealers. The rifles are offered in two grades, like new, and very good condition. The rifles are a fraction of the price they once commanded, prior to being imported in quantity. The guns are listed in the BATF Curio and Relics book, and can be shipped directly to collectors who have a C&R license.
The French model 1949/56 has a lot going for it. The rifles are in excellent condition. They are semi-automatic, have lots of accessories are well made, and best of all, they are inexpensive. It is sure to be one of those rifles, that a few years from now you will be telling a friend “I can remember when I could have bought one of those guns like new for only…”
There is an excellent book available for those who would like to read about the French development of semiautomatic small arms. The book “Proud Promise” by Jean Huon, is published by Collector Grade Publications. The book reveals some surprising facts about French progress in small arms development.
Basic Field Stripping of MAS 49/1956
|This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V1N3 (December 1997)|